Chip Conley: Should I Take My Burning Man Pics off Facebook?

Last Updated Oct 22, 2010 6:47 PM EDT

When BNET heard that hotelier Chip Conley's Facebook photos caused a mild uproar among his employees, we invited the entrepreneur to share his story. After all, usually it's the boss that's concerned about his staff's social media habits, not the other way around.

I'm grappling with a question of our times: When does something splashed on Facebook or broadcast via Twitter become bad for my company? The problem is not with my staff but with me. Specifically, photos that I posted on my Facebook page in September after returning from Burning Man, the weeklong anything-goes festival. Yes, I know it isn't the typical CEO getaway. That's part of the problem.

First, a little bit about me. I run Joie de Vivre, a company that operates a collection of boutique hotels in California. I founded the business 22 years ago, when I was 26 and a freshly minted MBA from Stanford. The first property I bought was a pay-by-the hour motel in a seedy part of San Francisco. People told me I was crazy to buy it, but I transformed it into a world-renowned rock 'n' roll hotel. Today, Joie de Vivre is a $230 million company with more than 3,000 employees and 38 properties. From the luxury spa resort in Big Sur to the urban chic hotel in San Francisco and a surfer-inspired hotel in Huntington Beach, our mission statement is simple: to celebrate the joy of life.

And that's precisely what I was doing at Burning Man, which, incidentally, I have attended twice before in the past decade, before this social media problem existed. I went with a close friend. She took a ton of pictures, and when I got home to San Francisco, I posted six of them, two of which show me shirtless. In one I'm wearing a tutu; in the other a sarong.

Only recently has my personal Facebook page become very personal. My PR agency set it up along with a fan page in February, rightly arguing that it was good for promoting the company and my latest book, Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow. I accepted pretty much anyone who "friended" me, including plenty of employees, and gradually I began posting the usual Facebook fodder — links to articles, quick takes on books, emotional missives. My profile picture — a business-casual blazer-and-collared-shirt look — was uploaded by my PR team as well. I swapped it out in favor of a shirtless shot of me in a parking lot at Burning Man.

Chip Conley Facebook Profile Photos

The two faces of Chip Conley on Facebook.

I'm just not a blazer kind of guy. I consider myself a rebel. My first book —The Rebel Rules: Daring to Be Yourself in Business — preaches the value of authenticity in business, of being true to yourself. So a few pictures on my Facebook page that show me having a good time? I honestly didn't give it a second thought.

I had, however, given thought as to how others at my company use social media, and this is where the whole thing gets a little messy. In fact, the issue of my pictures came up as we were creating a social media policy and seeking input from our cultural ambassadors. Our ambassadors are employees who are elected by their peers to represent each hotel; they work on such efforts as local philanthropy, employee recognition programs, and, lately, social media policies. It's a role I instituted about 12 years ago after reading about how Southwest Airlines had cultural ambassadors who served as representatives between field offices and headquarters. Joie de Vivre was growing fast, and I was concerned about keeping our culture intact.

I learned from my head of HR that four of our cultural ambassadors had fielded complaints from young staff members who, odd as it sounded to me, looked up to me, almost like a father figure. And, well, they didn't like seeing their father in a tutu. I also learned that staffers were concerned about some of my Twitter musings, in which I expressed anguish over the demise of an eight-year relationship. Somehow, all this seemed inappropriate for a CEO with thousands of employees.

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The feedback I got was that it looked like I was setting a double standard by creating a policy for everyone at the company except me. My HR chief suggested that I consider taking down the two pictures where I'm shirtless. My reaction was swift: "Screw that," I said. "People who don't like it can go work at Marriott."

And yet, I've begun to see her point. I don't want to create tension at the company or be viewed as a hypocrite. In fact, she and my head of public relations prevailed on me to keep the most controversial shots out of this article. The rebel in me balked. I honestly don't care who sees my photos from Burning Man. But I reconsidered. I decided I don't want an important discussion about social media and business to be sidelined by a hot-or-not type photo gallery of me.

Even so, I still plan to stick to my guns, practice what I preach about authenticity, and keep the photos on my Facebook page. Some of my people said my pictures are sexually suggestive, but I don't see it. No one complained when I dressed in drag at a holiday party seven years ago, although pictures never made their way to the Web. And I doubt anyone would be complaining if my pictures were from a beach vacation.

Besides, the company's social media policy is mainly designed to protect the privacy of our guests. If Jimmy Carter or Megan Fox stays at one of our hotels, I want to make sure the staff knows not to post photos on Facebook or blab about it on Twitter. The policy applies to the employees and their own behavior, but that's less of an issue, so long as they're not damaging the image of the company in public.

And this is where I can get into trouble. What, exactly, does it take to damage the image of the company? Sometimes it's straightforward — employees can't, for example, write about trade secrets — but other times, it's not. What if pictures emerge of a desk host drinking from a beer bong at a football game, or decked out in an S&M getup at an underground club? I'd have no problem with that, although I know plenty of CEOs who would. To me, that's an employee's private life. Take it a step farther — the employee is shown stealing municipal signs, for instance — and I would have a problem with it. Even worse would be if that employee is wearing a Joie de Vivre shirt. In other words, it's a case-by-case basis.

So as for a double standard, I don't buy it. I do think it's important that companies have a social media policy, and I don't think I violated the one my company just rolled out. Should a CEO be held to a different standard? Let me know what you think is right.

— As told to Paul Sloan